Athens-Clarke County commissioners appear likely to approve limits on new short-term rentals like Airbnbs next month. The question is, will they extend those regulations to existing short-term rentals (STRs) in single-family zones or grandfather them in?
The new rules have been winding their way through the county commission’s Government Operations Committee and the ACC Planning Commission for the past year and a half. They would require all new STRs in single-family zones to be occupied by the homeowner, preventing out-of-town investors from buying homes and turning them into full-time “party houses,” as many neighbors refer to them, yet still allow locals to make extra money by renting out an extra room, an accessory dwelling or the entire house for up to 30 days at a time. STR owners in single-family zones would also have to acquire a home business permit from the county like, for example, a home dog-grooming business.
“You could rent your entire property for a football weekend and get out of town, but it’s still first and foremost your primary residence,” Planning Director Brad Griffin told commissioners at their Jan. 16 agenda-setting session.
In multifamily and commercial zones, STRs would be treated much like bed-and-breakfasts, which are legal uses in those areas. Complaints from residents in those areas are far fewer compared to those who live in single-family neighborhoods. The latter have told the commission that houses, particularly in Five Points near Sanford Stadium, are being converted into full-time STRs where a new set of visitors every week—often a dozen or more in a single house—create noise, trash and parking problems, with no one to hold accountable because the owner lives in another state.
“It’s an ordinance that’s not going after the good ones that are doing it, but it’s going after folks that are the ones that are out-of-town and are driving up prices for everybody in town as far as housing goes, but also creating quality-of-life issues within neighborhoods that other people are having to deal with, and not knowing who to call to address the issues that are popping up,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.
Under the version approved by the GOC, existing STRs in single-family zones that do not conform to the new regulations would be allowed to continue operating until the owner sold the property, or they are not booked or advertised for a 12-month period. The planning commission, however, added a sunset provision that would only allow those existing STRs to continue operating for two years, despite the advice of county attorneys who said that such a provision would likely be struck down in court.
There are currently “several hundred” nonconforming STRs in single-family zones, Griffin said. ACC is hiring a third-party vendor to comb through tax records and website listings to create a list. If approved, the county will also hire a new employee to enforce the regulations.
“Enforcement is going to be very hard,” ACC Attorney Judd Drake said. “Ultimately the problem is when you go there, you’re going to have to have probable cause and all this, so from a code enforcement perspective, it’s going to be challenging.”
Some STR critics still view the proposed regulations as too weak. “…[T]hey look for all the world like an open invitation for local and absentee investors to continue stockpiling properties in RS [residential-single family] neighborhoods just as they’ve done up to now,” River Oaks resident Leon Galis wrote in an email to county planners. Galis proposed a potential solution to the grandfathering conundrum in a November Flagpole op-ed.
Hamby and commissioners Patrick Davenport and Carol Myers said they are in favor of the new regulations. While not objecting, Commissioner Dexter Fisher said the commission should table them until a consultant is hired, because the consultant might provide new information. Griffin and Manager Blaine Williams clarified later, though, that they should not have used the word “consultant,” because the vendor will be gathering data and not making policy recommendations. If the commission does hold the regulations at its Feb. 6 meeting, it will have to extend a moratorium on new single-family STRs that expires at midnight that night.
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